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Diversity in Computer Science? We Need to Look at Institutional Barriers to Getting a Degree

Diversity in Computer Science? We Need to Look at Institutional Barriers to Getting a Degree

By Louise Ann Lyon, PhD | April 19, 2016
Senior Research Associate, ETR

Getting a degree in computer science can be tough. In the name of “rigor,” computer science and related fields have established a structured hierarchy of course prerequisites. These need to be taken in a specific sequence. Often, however, the necessary classes aren’t offered every term. This situation forces college students to plan their schedules carefully or risk being delayed in their education.

I have sat in on many faculty meetings watching heated debates about how much math, science and computer science should be required of college graduates claiming a computer science major. But what are the implications of these decisions for who persists in computer science? And how much of this is truly necessary to prepare students for the current workplace versus simply keeping things the way they have always been?

Or, as I have been asking lately, is this about maintaining “rigor,” or just keeping out the “riff raff”?

Broadening Participation in Computer Science

As part of my research on broadening participation in computer science, I have interviewed many women and minority computer science college students. They tell me stories of classmates who dropped classes before a semester was over, fearing that a projected poor grade would lower their GPA. They talk of their own struggles to keep moving forward when they have to work to pay for their schooling. They describe family crises that require them to drop out or skip a semester of school, sometimes throwing off years of diligent, careful planning.

I have started to wonder if not only the number, but also the strict order, of classes required in computer science is keeping these students out of the major. Are we losing the voices and talents of a broad variety of students through limiting student flexibility in course taking?

I think that we should make an effort to research what topics are actually important and necessary for graduates to do well in the workplace. It’s time to identify what can be simplified, modified or dropped. It seems to me that the more flexibility we can give students, the more likely we are to encourage a wider variety of students to declare and stay in a computer science major.


Louise Ann Lyon, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate at ETR. She brings industry experience in the software engineering workplace together with a research background, focusing on diversifying technology at postsecondary institutions and in the workplace. She can be reached at

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